"I was raised in the mountains of West Virginia, and there aren't many Jewish folks where I lived," the 58-year-old said with an Appalachian drawl. "In fact, this is the first time I've ever stood in a temple and spoke."
What brought Hill, a fundamentalist Christian, to this temple is a most unlikely partnership, the other half of which, Barry Silver, has a front-row seat. By day, Silver is an attorney, and by Shabbat, he is a rabbi for this Reform Jewish congregation that has met in the cafeteria of the Christa McAuliffe Middle School for the past four years. Energetic and passionate, Silver sports a helmet of black hair, and his face is a fleshier version of Jerry Seinfeld's.A former Democatic state legislator, he has in the past sued Operation Rescue, an antiabortion group, for hassling clients and clinic workers. By contrast, Hill describes himself as a staunch pro-life advocate; he was deeply involved with Operation Rescue while running a Christian school in West Virginia before moving to Florida about five years ago.
Since 1998, Hill has been locked in a battle with Palm Beach County officials over his care for homeless people. Hill is minister of Westgate Tabernacle, which is located at 1700 Suwanee Dr., just south of West Palm Beach ("on the other side of the ditch," Hill says) in an area troubled by drugs, alcohol, and prostitution. Until the end of October 1998, the church took in as many as 30 homeless people a night and clothed and fed many more.
Some neighbors viewed Westgate as a magnet for homeless people rather than a remedy. County inspectors subsequently pummeled the church with code citations, intending, Hill believes, to close down the shelter operation.
The county's attempts to keep the church from working with the homeless nearly bankrupted Westgate at one point. Still, on Friday evening, Hill expressed his hearty gratitude to the Almighty: "I am thankful that God sent me a Jewish rabbi lawyer!"
Indeed, the two have set aside their differences, and Silver is representing Hill for free. They expect to file a lawsuit this week against the county in Palm Beach Circuit Court, claiming that the county infringed upon the church's guarantee of freedom of religion under the U.S. and Florida constitutions.
Based on the outcome of a similar federal lawsuit in New York City, Silver is confident of success. This past December, the city began evicting sleeping homeless people from the entryways to the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Manhattan's East Side. The city argued, in part, that the church was operating a shelter without proper certification. The church sought a permanent injunction, arguing that allowing the homeless to sleep there was part of its "Homeless Neighbors" policy, which was intended to develop relationships with individuals to help reintegrate them into society. Such work, the church held, is part of its religious mission and thus protected by the First Amendment. In January, a federal judge granted Fifth Avenue Presbyterian a permanent injunction to stop the city from removing the homeless.
Silver and Hill are no strangers to controversy or to life in the public eye.
Hill moves with a bouncy gait, frequently punctuating his words with a staccato laugh. He wears large, wire-rimmed glasses atop his teardrop-shaped face. In the mid-1970s, the minister led a movement to ban certain textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, schools; he believed they demeaned or disregarded Judeo-Christian values. Hill was also involved in numerous abortion protests throughout the '70s and '80s and operated a Christian school and television station for 17 years. About five years ago, after divorcing his wife, he moved to Florida and filled in as a pastor at Westgate Tabernacle. Hill became its full-time preacher within months, continuing the church's tradition, he says, of feeding and housing homeless people in its fellowship hall.
But Gateway's charity ran contrary to efforts by the county and neighborhood groups to revitalize the area. In 1998, county code enforcement officers cited the church for operating a shelter without a license and began levying a $100-a-day fine. Hill says that he tried to get such a license but that approval was contingent upon an ever-evolving list of required improvements such as a newer kitchen and better electrical wiring. "After jumping through all these hoops, we were literally broke," he says. The fines totaled $22,700 before the church stopped housing homeless people on October 31, 1998. Because the church has so far been unable to pay, the total has grown to more than $28,000 with interest. Westgate still feeds homeless people and offers them clothing and showers.
Hill views the county's citations as red herrings. "The reason the problem started is because of the homeless stigma -- nobody wants them around their neighborhood," he explains. "Communities are trying to revitalize. Now, I'm not against progress, but you can't turn your back on others. Caring for others is fundamental to Judeo-Christian belief."
It is this basic principle that led Silver to Hill. The lawyer represented the National Organization for Women in 1989 when that pro-choice group sued Operation Rescue, claiming its members were blocking access to a Boca Raton clinic. NOW and Silver prevailed in court in 1993, and abortion protesters must now remain 25 feet from the entrance.
Silver's interest in religion flows directly from his 89-year-old father, Samuel M. Silver, who served as a rabbi at temples in Connecticut and Florida until retiring. The elder Silver ordained his son in 1993, and in October 1998, the Rabbinical Seminary International in Manhattan (now called New International Seminary) also ordained him. About four years ago, the octogenarian Silver was pressed into service again by a core group that founded L'Dor V-Dor. With failing eyesight and hearing -- but an undiminished sense of humor and speaking style -- he relies heavily upon Barry as an assistant rabbi to lead services.
Toward the end of last year, Barry Silver read a Palm Beach Post article that mentioned Hill's struggle with the county. "I was shocked," he recalls. "I called him up and said, "I really appreciate what you're doing to help people in this county. My dad's a rabbi, and I serve with him in a congregation. Seeing someone use religious principles to make the world a better place and to fight against the county, I have a lot of respect for you.'" Before the telephone conversation was over, Silver had volunteered to represent Westgate.
A couple of weeks ago, Silver went to the church and delivered a Sunday sermon. When the rabbi arrived at the church, he found Hill blowing a shofar, a ram's horn traditionally used to usher in the Jewish High Holy Days. "The shofar calls us to action, wakens our conscience, and it says, "Don't just sit there -- do something,'" Silver explains. The Israeli flag hung prominently in the sanctuary.
On Friday night, just before singing a handful of songs with a band he'd brought along, Hill again lifted the temple's shofar to his lips and produced two protracted wails. Those present clapped as Hill lowered the horn, his face a jubilant red from the effort.
"He's a rare breed, from what I've seen," Silver declares. "Even though we have these differences, we still agree on a lot. I can disagree with Avis Hill on abortion, but we can still work together on issues of helping people. Because if I'm going to refuse to talk to someone because I disagree with him on an issue, we're all in sorry shape and religion is in sorry shape."
Silver isn't circumspect about the county's conduct: "It's a pathetic abuse of power and authority and a disregard for the welfare of the people of this county. The County Commission starts out its meetings asking for divine guidance, but they're only paying lip service to that request. Instead, they're guided by where the money is coming from. Poor and homeless have no money; therefore, they have no influence on the County Commission."
Hill is ready for a fight but sees it as a distraction from the mission at hand. "I just want to do God's work and be left alone," he proclaims. "There's got to be an end to this."